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Mary Douglas & Steven Ney: Missing Persons:
a critique of the social sciences
(University of California Press: 1998)


“Our culture, at present, gives us ample ways to reflect on ourselves as individuals, but not as cultural creatures. Where we would expect to find accounts of the person exercising the fullness of moral and political choice, we find a blank cipher. Utility theory shows the person as a choosing machine, but the choices are treated piecemeal. Their implications for a moral standpoint are overlooked, and heavier weight is put upon the right of a person to stay alive, than to live according to choice. We propose...that homo oeconomicus is like the microcosms of earlier civilizations, in which the body of a human, the body politic, and the celestial bodies are moved by the same universal principles.... We have noticed some perverse effects. Here are social sciences, so-called, which proceed as if rational humans are not primarily social beings.... The theoretical posture seems to be justified because it protects objectivity, yet it is no protection against subjective bias, as we observe when we see how heavily biased are the social sciences against institutions.... [But] political and moral choices are about how to live in society [and] one way of living rules out another, because each one must appropriate space and time and objects for the purposes it can achieve. So the choices do not come in random bundles, or as separate disconnected items.... [And] there are important issues we cannot face squarely or fairly without a better concept of the human as a political animal.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.183-5)

When the higher profile social sciences have finished their respective divisions of our collective lives, there’s always one, rather embarrassing, residual category left - far, far too large & significant to be ignored, yet stubbornly resisting neat analysis. I speak here, of course, of culture...traditionally the province of anthropologists, with their focus set upon pre-modern cultures, whilst our own was to be properly viewed through the lens of a far-from embracing “high culture” - itself never to be addressed in scientific terms...

Of course, this consensus has long been broken, and yet - as Mary Douglas never ceased to remind us - examination of our own culture through the anthropological lens has never been accorded much legitimacy. Moreover, there’s been little consensus on exactly what the basics of such a view might be (beyond, of course, the standard political posturings)...with even the most impressive works in the area often proceeding in isolation from each other. Here, I’m particularly thinking of Edward T. Hall & Mary Douglas - two very prominent anthropological theorists, whose focus of concern similarly became how best to deal w/culture in toto (and in the developed West), and whose approaches seem fascinatingly complementary, despite their seeming ignorance of each others’ work.

For whilst Hall explicitly disavowed any interest in the anthropology of institutions - his approach serving rather to explore the (heavily) neglected borderlands between anthropology and psychology, via the lens of intercultural communications - the collective cognition of the former became Douglas’ special preserve, whilst she, in turn, showed very little respect for psychology. In consequence, there is little or no overlap in their approaches/arguments...however, they also - as we shall see - dovetail very usefully, in ways which help us make sense of the riddle of culture, without betraying its divided (and divisive) nature...


“At present, the individual who is so central to our social thought is a little universe, complete unto itself. The psyche is the frame onto which the operations of rational choice are pegged. Like a set of Chinese boxes, specific functions, reason and emotion, benevolence and self-interest, reign each in its own sphere and contend with one another, like homunculi whose tugs-of-war replicate the final choices of the sovereign person. Everything that results in choice goes on inside the psyche. It has been stripped down precisely to get away from metaphysical doctrines that are tied to particular religions, or interests.... It was to have been a tool, to detect and expose ideology, but sooner or later the project acquired an ideology of its own. In effect, when it comes to talking about human behavior, objectivity is equally difficult, with or without ideological guidelines.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.75-6)

“That it might be necessary to speak, and to say nothing, suggests another function for the empty person at the head of rational-choice theory. That may be the secret of Homo oeconomicus, his resilience, his gift to democracy: to cover conflict, and enable us to live together.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, p.175)

“There is no denying that the philosophers of the West have had good reasons for keeping the person as a taboo area, that can be talked about but not systematized. We have had a bad experience with dictators and religions using their definitions of what the human person needs.... One result of that bad experience is our wish to put important, sensitive topics outside the scope of political conflict. For these reasons, the mind is stripped bare and plunged naked into the statistical cauldron, while influences from other minds are systematically cauterized. So, we are left with the paradox that the social science’s description of the self does not refer to a social being. As the microcosm requires, everything has to be sacrificed to generality, which is expected to protect objectivity, but the generality tends to evacuate meaning. Until the gap that is the empty self is filled, most of the other gaps in the social sciences will generate inscrutable paradoxes.... [And,] without making space for culture, [any such] model is vacuous. Culture is the result of people getting together; it is the result of mutual encouragement and coercion. Culture is the selective screen through which the individual receives knowledge of how the world works, and how people behave. For humans, nothing is known from scratch, everything is transmitted through other persons, and they are not isolated influences. In banding together, they have contrived a coding device for acceptable knowledge. So well hidden is the coding that any true knowledge claims to be independent of history and cultural bias. The search for authenticity and authority ends with the construction of a macrocosm of God or nature, to which the new items of knowledge must conform.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.88-91)

“Marilyn Strathern calls the Western idea of the ‘free-standing, self-contained individual’ a folk model, in which, ‘because society is likened to an environment...it is possible for Euro-Americans to think of individual persons as relating not to other persons, but to society as such, and to think of relations as after the fact of the individual’s personhood, rather than integral to it.’”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.8-9)

In How Institutions Think - previously reviewed in these pages - Mary Douglas worked through the most basic questions of collective cognition, a (belated) prolegomena to the grid-group cultural theory which has dominated much of her mature work. Here, with the aid of one Steven Ney, she issues what would turn out to be her final major statement on that theory, cast in the form of a wide-ranging critique of the mainstream social sciences, with their highly impoverished conception of what it means to be a person. The result both amplifies and builds upon the foundational work of the earlier book...and, together, they provide the best possible way into her (incisive) thought:


“It is not necessary to call a spade a spade, but it is necessary to know what a spade is.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, p.117)

“Both emotion and behavior are parts of a generative system that also produces culture. Studying how this system works cannot be shirked, [and] emotions were only able to supply explanation when they seemed ultimate, and beyond explanation themselves.... An explanation of social behavior that creams off a few symptoms and links them to emotions encourages a fatal intellectual failing: lack of curiosity.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, p.28)

“After nearly a century of denigration, it is difficult for sociologists to think coolly about institutions. Anyone must notice that institutions are a bad word in Anglo-Saxon sociology, and even more so in psychology. Mysteriously, structuration and networks are acceptable, but institution and routinization are poisoned words.... [And,] parallel to the economist’s fear that monopoly hinders free trade, sociologists were seeing human intentions as thwarted by dysfunctional institutions that inhibit progress, brutalize the growing child, and stunt the adult mind.... [Moreover,] as there was only one kind of person, with the cultural differences smoothed out, so there tended to be, and even to this day in organization theory there still tends to be, one kind of organization, with internal differentiating structures smoothed out.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.159-62)

It’s very hard to argue w/Douglas in these areas - the shortcomings of Homo oeconomicus as a person, for example, have been freely acknowledged even by mainstream economists - and yet, compelling as such arguments remain, there exists little will to shift ground, towards a more realistic conception of the person as inherently social, even though the framework has been carefully developed, and is increasingly in accord w/much of the best emergent work in the human sciences. For example, here Douglas & Ney apply Gerd Gigerenzer’s ‘tool-to-theory heuristic’ to rephrase a point she has been making since (at least) the early seventies - yet again demonstrating her ability to anticipate what others will develop:


“People organize for doing something, they become habituated to the tools they make for judging their work, the regular usage makes them ready to accept an idea based on the proven practice, new theories can take off from this steady foundation, the new theories confirm the value of the practice, and further new theories on the same model will be acceptable. Thinking is possible because it is stabilized by shared practices; social life is possible because it is stabilized by thinking. The snake’s tail is in the snake’s mouth, and a dynamic circle of interaction is complete. Once the pieces of the microcosm have been put together, a metaphor works because it is compatible with a relevant practice, and takes its direction from that compatibility. By extension, an idea acquires replicative power when other institutions can gain support from its success.... The idea of a microcosm provides a mode of abstraction from the smaller to the greater, and back again. At the same time, it gives the principles for prescribing good behavior, and provides the principles for theorylike predictions about the interactions between humans and the natural world. The origins and evolution of microcosms are difficult to study; we are usually not able to be present through the process. But, in this case we have the records, and we know Economic Man became a microcosm by developing from tool to theory, along the path of institutions. Once it became a theory of mind, its proliferation was assured.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.31-3)

“A microcosm does well if it can serve as a model of the universe, of the empire, of the mind, and of how the models interact at different levels.... The theory of utility was set from the outset to grow into a microcosm, because it made self-regulating wants of the individual match the self-regulating mechanism for the economy.... First, the political economy was developed as a homeostatic model, and then the psyche of the consumer was invoked to link up demand and supply, in order to stabilize the system and make the machinery work. Then the political lessons fell into place.... In the history of the subject, theoretical development and empirical testing fed each other normally at the market level; the connection between market and other levels existed only in the imagination. Ultimately, the plausibility of the whole theoretical edifice still rests on a popular but untested set of analogical recapitulations.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.36-9)

“Utility theory presupposes a human brain that is capable of impossibly elaborate calculations. Herbert Simon, seeing this flaw, suggested instead that...rationality is bounded as to its scope and power, and the rational being aims not to maximize but to satisfice, that is, to find a zone of satisfaction with several criteria. In this approach, bounded rationality is not necessarily negative, although many commentators have seen boundedness as a limitation on rational thought.... The argument we have been developing about the minds of social beings suggests, on the contrary, that bounded rationality is a special kind of human cleverness, that allows the individual mind to hand over some of the work of thinking to habit or institutions. It is not just an economy in psychic energy, or just a skill for avoiding overload, but a way of tapping into the experience of other persons. Is this a weakness? Your answer depends on what sort of bias you have about institutions or, to put it into the same terms, how you regard this faculty depends on the way your reasoning is bounded.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, p.120)

And, as befits a volume which is such a wide-ranging summa, there are also pithy recapitulations/extensions of many of her key conclusions central to earlier works, such as these re small-scale societies, and the patterns of consumer choice:


“It is not plausible that transaction costs would be under control in a small-scale society. Quite the opposite: The temptation to take a free-ride on the efforts of others is just as lively in small communities as in large. The unpleasantness and loss of popularity for monitoring and punishing are greater, the difficulty of holding anyone to his or her contract is overwhelming. All this inhibits the development of institutions the world over. The opposite case is more defensible: In so-called primitive societies transaction costs are prohibitively high. The low level of economic development would be due to uncertainty, high risks, missing information about the intentions and beliefs of others, and high costs of monitoring and punishing defectors - in short, lack of the right kind of supporting institutions.... [And] when uncertainty is high, and risk of cheating great, it makes sense to create ‘a community of fate’...so that the potential cheat sees his advantage in probity. Making the brother-in-law, nephew, wife, or sister a copartner engages some kin to share the costs of monitoring the other kin. It is rational for economy to be embedded in kinship, even if this is counterproductive for economic development. The reasonable response to weak infrastructure - absence of insurance, lack of policing, unsafe highways, high information costs, low guarantees of honesty - is to embed trading activities in networks that produce increasing returns. More trust can be placed in family ties than in commercial relations: Investment in a kinship network of multiple obligations and long-term expectations will save on transaction costs. In this kind of society, it is wise to be locked into protective institutions, to accept low-level and even restrictive cooperative solutions. The institutions in which economic activity is embedded serve multiple purposes...[so] lock-in has benefits, as well as costs. It depends on the context.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.168-9)

“Commodities do not satisfy desire; they are only the tools or instruments for satisfying it. Goods are not ends. Goods are for distributing, sharing, consuming, or destroying publicly in one way or another. To focus exclusively on how persons relate to objects can never illuminate the nature of desire. Instead, we should focus on the patterns of alliance and authority that hold between persons and, in all human societies, these are marked by the circulation of goods.... Goods are battle standards. They draw the line between good and evil, and there are no neutral objects. The main objective of consumption is to achieve the desired pattern of social relationships. [Moreover,] if taste formation depended on childhood learning, tastes would be rigid. They actually depend on current interaction with other people. Individuals adopt their tastes in accordance with how they relate to the larger, ongoing system in which they live. As they contemplate their wants and needs, they negotiate with others about how to set priorities and standards of quality - and quantity, too. This does not argue for the social determination of wants, [since] the forms of society are also being negotiated by the same people whose tastes we are studying. Society and tastes are coproduced. As they work together to make their kind of society, people collaborate over the list of wants and needs they are going to consider acceptable, and they collusively set their judgements of value. Tastes are heavily implicated in the communication process...[and] there is no way of separating instrumental from symbolic objects.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.53-8)

It is around about here that we can see the general critique - expanding upon and refining aspects of her earlier book - giving way to the specific alternative...the approach variously known as grid-group theory, or the cultural theory of risk. Having recently worked through Douglas’ varied writings upon the subject - mainly centred around the politics of risk and patterns of consumer choice - I’m confident that this work with Steven Ney is the best way into this, as it most clearly articulates what is at stake when we choose such an approach over its impoverished alternative...and precisely why the theory takes the form it does...


“The problem is to determine how many distinct kinds of...worlds we need for a theory of cultural bias. The selection must be able to be justified; it must be exhaustive and comprehensive in relation to the problem. [They] should be incompatible with each other, at least insofar as making competing demands on resources; each should be adversarially defined in relation to the others, in the sense that they apply incompatible judgements of personal worth, and seek incompatible goals; each should put different factors into its decision-making processes, and so come up with different solutions; each should be interacting with the others, thus sharpening its sense of difference through contrast and conflict.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.99-100)

“The cultural theory on which we are relying in this volume assumes that four types of cultural bias are always potentially present in any group of persons, all four competing with one another, and each tipping behavior toward one or another type of organization. Four, not because four types are all that there are, but for the sake of having a parsimonious model of organizations, in two dimensions only. If anyone protests that there are really fifteen, five hundred, or two thousand types, or six or eight dimensions, they mistake the exercise. Eleven thousand, or a million, would not be enough to cover the variety that is out there.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.100-1)


B = isolates, by choice or compulsion, literally alone, or isolated in complex structures (eclectic values)

C = strongly incorporated groups, with complex structure (hierarchies, for example)

A = weak structure, weak incorporation (competitive individualism)

D = strongly incorporated groups, with weak structure (egalitarian enclaves, or sects, for example)
The cultural map
(Douglas & Ney 1998, p.101)

“These four cultures are discriminated on principles of organization. The top half of the diagram is a society dominated by a grid of compartments, fixed positions, and separating rules that restrict individual free choice. The grid is progressively weakened going downward. From left to right, the individuals start alone, or independently, and are progressively organized into bounded groups. The top right gives you a complexly ordered collectivity; the bottom right gives you a simple egalitarian collectivity. On the bottom left, where collective action is weak, individuals negotiate with each other freely...the ideal for rational economic man. In the top left, individuals are more constrained than elsewhere by separating rules, or economic hindrances.... Each culture is good for different organizational purposes...defined in opposition to the others, and recruits its supporters or loses them competitively. [Therefore,] it is no accident that any word you may choose for labelling these four opposed cultures evokes bias, if it is not actually seen as pejorative. For some, complexity is a bad word, market is pejorative for others, sect is dismissive, fatalist is derisive. So they were originally named A, B, C, D, after the two dimensions on which the model was constructed: structure (in the vertical dimension) and incorporation (in the horizontal.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.102-3)

At this point - if you’re new to grid-group theory - it might well be worth your while to pause, and carefully re-read the last few extracts. This should help stave off the usual misunderstandings of the theory...unfortunately all-too-prevalent in the social sciences. For Douglas is not claiming omniscience for her scheme - far from it. The divisions are heuristic, rather than absolute, to help us carve up (and, thus, think about) what was in origin - and remains - a continuous spectrum in both dimensions under analysis. Moreover, there is also no pretence that these two are the only significant dimensions of variability...

Instead, all that is claimed is that they are the most useful when attempting to simply chart cultural/social/political commitments, and that their use can significantly help our understanding of such...

About all we can (or should) claim for theories in such areas, I would say.

Now...having cleared the ground, as it were, it’s time to flesh the framework out - and, not coincidentally - demonstrate the value of the heuristic in action:


“In the individualist quadrant, the person is expected to be robust; in the egalitarian quadrant, fragile; in the isolate’s quadrant, mysteriously unpredictable; and in the hierarchical one, in need of structure....[And whilst] twentieth-century social sciences have been working steadily on the distinction between communitarian hierarchy and individualist market...it is more difficult to incorporate in the normal political science conversation the other two cultures, isolates and egalitarian groups. The first tend to be ignored because they are voiceless; the second, though often strident, tend to be ignored because they are relegated to the chapter on religion. The isolates are very interesting in themselves...[for] the very fact of somehow not being caught up in other people’s time schedules, not trying to exert influence, and not seeking power gives them something in common. The isolate’s style is lightheartedness, even fecklessness or, alternatively, putting a brave face on hopelessness, on fatalism.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.108-114)

“Individualists, as the name implies, are not trying to create a community, but rather aiming to free themselves from the fetters of social restriction. They thrive in loose organizational structures, around which they can move freely without long-term commitment, able to negotiate their own dealings with other individuals. Well-being for them means the freedom to pursue self-interested ends. It is the well-being of the narrowly defined ego, the ideal of negative freedom from interference. The strong policy angle is that individualists would consider that rational persons, although not equal, are best situated to judge what is good for themselves. Hierarchists seek to make a community that is an ordered system; their moral framework is one of differentiated obligations according to place in complex occupational schemes. Hierarchists have a broader, longer-term, stratified conception of well-being, [and] the happiness of others enters into individual well-being. [However,] according to status and position in the hierarchy, well-being may be different for lower-echelon members than for the elite. Hierarchists do not consider it impossible to judge others’ needs, and it may be properly legitimate for high-status members of the hierarchy to decide and act in the best interest of their charges. This is a major difference in policy style from the above. Sectarian minority groups strive to create a community that is free of control. Morally, they appeal to subjectivity and individual conscience. At the level of organization, they frown on formal discriminations, and are champions of communal self-organization. Sectarians perceive well-being on a global scale: Everyone is equal, and well-being is a world free of domination and inequality. This principle is not open to negotiation; there is no middle ground. On policy issues, this is a style of thinking and a substantive policy package that is totally different from the two above.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.122-3)

“Now we can ask why religions that refer everything to a “Book” endure, and become world religions. The Book has many roles, but in the context of the severe difficulty of organizing people who are committed to not being organized - that is, to total egalitarianism - it has a saving role for decision making...[enabling] them to disperse authority, and still make decisions , without seeming to decide.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, p.150)

“The cultures all maintain their vitality by enacting their mutual symbolic opposition. All contact with others is in terms of the culture’s own assumptions and social relationships...[and] the ideas they entertain about the motivation of others are produced in their everyday normative talk, and reflect beck to them what cultural opposition leads them to expect.... Thus, by interpreting the intentions of stereotypical others according to the language of cultural conflict, each culture achieves logical closure on its own premises, and succeeds in reproducing its own system of control and accountability. Cultures incorporate their implicit agendas by framing selected issues, setting agendas, labelling and foregrounding, backgrounding, and fading out.... [And so,] if we allow for cultural diversity in the public sphere, we must acknowledge that there is bound to be systemic disagreement, over fundamental principles. Whole social persons will not be able to resolve disagreement as easily as will the abstract, unsocial persons of the market model.... And, if this impasse is reached, one thing that will not help is to preach virtue to the opposing parties.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.123-4)

Having developed the implications of the framework, the authors then return to the focus of Douglas’ earlier work - institutions - and suggest why our traditional mistrust of these (as cognitive traps) has been exaggerated...since they are hardly the sleek objects of malign design of our imaginings. Nor, indeed, are they as monocultural as we claim...


“The notion that institutions are put together piecemeal and episodically, by a mixture of chance and intelligent opportunism, not deliberately designed, not engineered, but strengthened by habit and convenience, may seem jejune and unexciting. However, that idea itself enjoys dynamic, increasing returns, because it fits with other current ideas about conventions and coordination problems...[in which] conventions explain path dependency, increasing returns, and savings on transaction costs. [Moreover,] the new theoretical style is appealingly modest.... When institutions are seen to be made in much the same cooperative but unplanned way as language is made, they appear less inimical to constitutional liberties. When institutions were cast in a more controlling role, they raised the question of sociological determinism. But, now that institutions are seen to be somewhat haphazard in their origins, a patchwork of pressures and counterpressures, possibly dynamic, possibly static, the question of their influence on the minds of their members takes a different form.... [For] cultural theory says that the almost indiscernible processes of choice exert a pull toward determinate institutional forms, but it does not say that an effort to stop and turn around must fail.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.171-3)

“Our legacy of thinking about public administration has only one repetitive idea: Bureaucracy is hierarchical; hierarchies are bureaucratic. When we have to think about how they are controlled, the first model that comes to mind is the inspectorate; and when we think about how they become inept, we think of a rule-bound superstructure, top-heavy with custodians checking on other custodians, and perversely committed to its own perpetuation, rather than to its manifest tasks.... Evidently, institutions suffer the same kind of stereotyping as do persons, and they would benefit from cultural theory’s map, which locates different kinds of institutions according to the values they support.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.176-7)

And, in a very impressive finale, the authors then go on to do exactly that...incidentally also demonstrating grid-group theory’s vast superiority to what usually passes for “management science”, since the result so clearly offers both descriptive and prescriptive lessons of wide applicability. Part of the importance of grid-group theory, in fact, is the argument that all four tendencies are always part of the human repertoire - to be embodied forth in different guises as the result of specific situations & pressures - and that each has specific strengths and weaknesses...and that they are, in fact, necessarily complementary.

In this - as well as in the specifics of the three group tendencies - one can see useful parallels w/Edward T. Hall’s typology of forms of culture/learning. Arguably, the formal is the valorised form of learning in hierarchical cultures, the technical in individualist cultures, and the informal in enclavist...albeit, as Hall insists, all learning situations incorporate elements of all three...

Here, we can - yet again - see consilience in the human sciences, as two wide-ranging theorists draw upon very different strands in anthropological thought to end up portraying the public and private faces of the very same pattern: that which, in human affairs, draws us together to rebuild patterns of meaning in common. And that they should also help show us how governance works is no accident...


“Christopher Hood...distinguishes four types of doctrine of good government and democracy.... The first he calls ‘contrived randomness.’ It is a form of administration whose objective is to prevent collusion, corruption and fraud, and does so by reducing the contacts between staff members, and by increasing unpredictability. In cultural-theory terminology, it combines a highly programmed structure - high grid - with weak bonds - low group - [which] is typical of traditional bureaucracies and multinational  companies, devised especially for controlling financial or field-group operations: It includes division of authority, limited tenure, rotation of staff, semirandom postings, unannounced random checks.... Hood’s next form of public administration control he calls ‘mutuality’...a collegial group process that is used to prevent individuals from acting alone, and to keep each in harness with colleagues whose interest is to prevent corruption...blurring boundaries between controller and controlled, insider and outsider.... [However,] Hood points out darkly that, according to cultural theory - which argues that living with ambiguity causes strain - such systems survive only by continual expulsion of deviants or heretics. Yes! Does not this explain something we knew already, but did not understand: the bitterness of academic infighting? Third, Hood counts competition as a deliberate technique of public administration...[and,] lastly, the more familiar control by oversight and review fits the hierarchist cultural bias.... In organizations, it involves establishing a ladder of authority and expertise, and is clearly not compatible with other forms of control.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.177-9)

“Though each seems to be completely antithetical to the other methods of control, the four systems can coexist, as long as the areas of responsibility are well defined.... [Moreover,] the different cultures do not become dominant by luck...[as] a style of organization and its culture have a better chance of coming out on top if they suit the dominant technological type.... It follows that the first form of failure which lies in wait for all four cultural types is the wrong institutional structure for the technological base. [And] technological change in our day makes it possible to call the urbane formalism of Homo oeconomicus into question. The technological base has changed; and with a new communications system involving dispersed authority and easy dissolution of ties, a new cultural regime has emerged. This is what is going to make it possible to do what was frowned on before: to examine ourselves and others in a fourfold reflecting mirror.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.180-1)

Mary Douglas & Steven Ney’s Missing Persons is a crucial challenge to the hidebound basic assumptions of most of the social sciences, the key successor to Douglas’ How Institutions Think, and the important final summation of Douglas’ approach to the grid-group cultural theory she originated. The latter, in particular, allows us to usefully carve up the cultural landscape based not upon formal differences - the default (and largely uninformative, outside of technical questions) approach to such matters - but upon the basic commitments we hold with regard to the sort of societies we wish to live in. And, as Douglas has shown in her varied work upon consumption, such choices have wide ramifications with regard to the whole range of choices we make in this world...

By linking the work of Runciman, Douglas, and Hall, I would argue, we can best construct the type of basic social sciences heuristic needed to complement the historical and developmental/educational approaches identified elsewhere in these reviews. The result is far more modest in aim than is usual from wide-ranging approaches in the social sciences...indeed, in aiming more at understanding, and in eschewing determinism & prediction, they resemble much more the finest historians, whose aims have so influenced mine.

In this company, Mary Douglas arguably occupies the lynchpin role, tying together - via her investigation of the workings of collective cognition - the broad patterns of social power and the minutiae of cultural difference and individual experience. Let us finish, then, with her views as to our current cultural trajectory...insightful, as always:


“Enclave’s weak or dispersed authority system does not flourish with centralized technology. [So,] to the extent that it is based on electronic communication, our own society has become friendlier ground for enclavism of all kinds. The enclave formula is good for effective defense of large principles, and small groups. It is bad at budgetary control...[but] good for organizing short-term offensives. [Furthermore,] enclave would flourish when the political conditions are against any realistic expectation that it will take over government; when administrative impotence is guaranteed, and the budget is controlled by the adversary, criticism can be unconstrained. [Also,] clearly, a technology of communication by which accountability is globally dispersed would also be favorable to the culture of individualism, as in our great multinational corporations. This culture entails a great many weaknesses. One is the lack of investment in public goods. Another is that its star performers can be bought by rivals. Another is the difficulty of justifying an effective theory of social justice, in terms acceptable to Homo oeconomicus. Another is the combination of moral weakness and military strength. [Moreover,] the same technological  base encourages the culture of isolates.... [However,] in the sequence of cultural regimes, hierarchy has had its day. It can survive, but with scant respect, and only in carefully protected niches...[such as] heavy manufacturing industry, imperial wars, and wherever centralization is useful.”
(Douglas & Ney 1998, pp.181-2)



John Henry Calvinist